How a Libertarian Used Ayn Rand's Crazy Philosophy to Drive Sears Into the Ground
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Sears became a miserable place to work, rife with infighting and screaming matches. Employees focused solely on making money in their own unit ceased to have any loyalty the company or stake in its survival. Meanwhile, Eddie Lampert taunted employees by posting under a fake name on the company’s internal social network.
What Lampert failed to see is that humans actually have a natural inclination to work for the mutual benefit of an organization. They like to cooperate and collaborate, and they often work more productively when they have shared goals. Take all of that away and you create a company that will destroy itself.
In 2012, Lampert bought a $40 million home on Indian Creek Island, near Miami, just around the time he decided to sell 1,200 Sears stores and close an additional 173. That same year, Sears Holding was named the sixth worst place in America to work by AOL Jobs.
3. Myth: Greed always wins
In the 1980s, a noxious business philosophy developed that said that shareholders were the only true stakeholders in a company, because they made the investments and bore the risk. Forget about the investments and risks born by taxpayer and the people that work for a company. They didn’t matter. A company had no responsibility to anybody but the shareholder.
As a result, executives started using this justification for various kinds of hustles designed to line their pockets. They got very adept at the game of buying back their own stock in a way designed to inflate earnings per share and hide weaknesses.
In 1977, 95 percent of distributions to shareholders came in the form of dividend payments. Today, more than half of the cash distributed to shareholders of S&P 500 companies comes from buybacks instead of dividends.
Fortune magazine, in a story about what happens when Wall Street jumps into the retail business, reports that under Lampert, Sears has gone on a stock buyback spree. Between 2005 and 2011, he took what was once the company’s strong cash flow and spent $6.1 billion of it on stock buybacks. During the same time period, only $3.6 billion was spent at Sears on capital improvements. Lampert told investors that upgrades and new stores were not an “efficient” use of capital. Neither was paying workers decently. In fact, Sears workers are paid so badly that they have taken to the streets to protest.
So when you walk into a Sears store today, you find a sad, dingy scene with scuffed floors and chipped paint. Tense-looking workers hover over merchandise scattered onto ugly display tables. Hardly makes you want to buy a microwave.
A handy chart on Yahoo Finance show that buybacks reached a high just about the time that Sears' sales went into the toilet. Stock buybacks are really just an effort to manipulate stock prices, and they don’t help a company’s long-term health. They divert money away from the things that a company needs to have to succeed, like decent salaries for workers and investments in new products and services. Wonder why Apple is no longer making anything interesting? Why its retail workers get paid squat? Check out what they’ve been doing with stock buybacks.
Lampert’s buyback scheme has raked in a pile of money for him and his early investors, but it’s also flushing the company down the drain. Hoovering cash out of any firm, especially a retailer that needs appealing stores and strong advertising, will eventually crush sales.
And so it has. Sears has lost half its value in five years.